Another known person has been found dead, according to the media. Cause of death? Suicide. But as the long days go by, stories come out. He suffered from depression. She had been seeing a counsellor and was on medication. For depression. And it is always, to many of us beyond their immediate circle, such a shock. We had no idea he was depressed. She looked and sounded so happy last night.
For those who suffer with depression, our culture, especially our Christian culture, has so stigmatized weakness that we feel we cannot admit our need, admit our weakness. Even our own family members cannot understand why we just can’t get better. We live in fear that the wrong person will find out, that we might lose our job, that our spouse might reject us, and so we adopt the only safe posture we know - denial - which turns out not to be safe at all.
You may have noticed that I have rather quickly shifted from the third person to the first person. And that is because I suffer from depression. I live with depression. I was in denial for decades, thinking I was just moody or melancholy. And when I was floored by a major depressive episode 17 years ago, I determined it was a reaction to some anti-malarial medicine I was taking. But then the episodes recurred, again and again. I explained it to myself by saying I wasn’t handling the stress of being a missionary very well. But what was really happening was that I was not handling the stress and the terror of a failing marriage, and there was no place I felt I could go to get help. And so I stuffed my stress and my terror and fear and anger into a hole in my heart, out of sight and far away from the people I lived with and worked with. And my heart and my mind responded by becoming septic.
Most people, even Christians, maybe even especially Christians, do not want to be bothered by another person’s troubles. I don’t want to know about your terrible marriage, I don’t want to know about the verbal abuse you endure. I don’t want to know about your medical problems. I don’t want to know that you have been banished from your own home. These things trouble our tidy worlds. And the platitudes on which so many of us construct our flimsy lives. But they also communicate in no uncertain terms to the one who is depressed that there is no safe place to run and hide. And the church, so full of the so-called ‘saved’, who supposedly have experienced the love of Christ first hand, the church is often the least safe place of all. This I know from experience.
I was the senior pastor of a mega church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I had been struggling with depression for several years, but I had responded well to medication and one would never have known I had been ill if I didn’t choose to tell you. We had scheduled a leadership retreat and I decided to lead by example and demonstrate vulnerability and weakness as a mark of the kind of leadership Jesus was calling his followers to be in their interaction with and ministry to one another. So I shared my experience of depression and some things I had learned, in the hopes that this might motivate my fellow leaders to own their own weakness, and learn how to receive and give grace.
The following Tuesday I received a delegation from our elders and they demanded that I resign. They said I was sick and that I needed to go away. I was stunned. And I explained to them that their very response told me that they actually knew little if anything about depression and how it was treated. I told them that I was fine, and that if they wanted to remove me from office they would have to find a real reason to justify it.
While I had a very good relationship with my staff and my congregation, my relationship with a few people on the leadership team seemed poisoned from then on. Oh they were friendly enough when I was with them and other people, but I heard that things were otherwise when they were discussing (gossiping about) me in other contexts. They finally succeeded in making things impossible for me to stay when they undertook to destroy one of our best staff members, and then went after me when I defended her in one of those jaw-dropping meetings that, even now, I cannot believe what was said and what malice was shown and what complete ignorance was betrayed.
A handful of people stood with me, but I spiralled down. Even my wife said, after a year or so, that it was time for me to ‘get over it’. But I could no more ‘get over it’ than a person locked in a barrel going over Niagara Falls can get them selves out and to safety.
After my resignation I spent one more year in a kind of no-man’s land in Ethiopia until we finally moved to Kenya. I was still teaching courses. But several times every day I drove by the church that I had pastored and led, and not a single person in the church reached out to me. It was as if I had disappeared. Word came back to me that the men who had orchestrated the circumstances which led to my resignation had let it be known that the former pastor was a very sick man and wouldn’t be coming back even though my friends and ministry colleagues there knew I was still teaching down the road and would occasionally see me in the grocery store or at my children’s school. After the shock wore off I found myself embarrassed, angry, hurting, grieving. But once again, even though I was a Christian surrounded by Christians, where could I take any of this? My mission directors were nice people, but they seemed to have no idea how to deal with what I was going through except to say that the Lord was in control and that I could trust him to bring me through this. No offer of help. No willingness to intercede on my behalf. I began to suspect they thought I was the source of the problem, just like the elders. Home was also not a safe place. I was listened to up to a point and then my spouse grew bored and suggested it was time to move on. Not to mention the growing relational trauma that I had been experiencing over many years. I had no place to go. There was no safe place. Not church. Not even home. So I ate it. With almost immediate detrimental consequences.
After we moved to Kenya, the floor fell out from under me almost as soon as I got there. I was teaching, I was trying to process leaving and grieving over the place I had lived with my family for 8 years. I was trying to navigate living in a new city and a new culture and a new institution. Things were increasingly bad at home. And the day came when the world never resolved into color but became dull grey in every direction. I was listless. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t read. I didn’t want to see anybody. I just wanted to get out of my unhappy house and hide in my office, where I stared at my laptop screen. I felt constantly on the verge of tears. And because I was a Christian. I cried out to God. I prayed and prayed and prayed for help. But God felt absent. And none of the people around me really had the awareness, interest or even capacity to do care. And there certainly wasn't room for a man with a dark cloud over his head at the mildly Pentecostal church where my wife insisted on attending. Everyone was too busy being happy and praising the Lord. Unfortunately, I was still very much in denial that my marriage was tanking, for the simple reason that conservative Christians in missionary work don’t have a very good track record of handling problems like this. Also, I actually, sadly, believed my spouse, who had said for years that it was my fault, that our problems were a result of my selfishness/stupidity/unwillingness to care for her, etc. It would take many years more before I realised that none of this was true, that there were other dynamics at work in her life and in mine that caused our relationship to die an unnatural death. There were also other things in my life that I had struggle with for years, and I was inclined to think that these were the cause of my internal distress. But I have later realised that I was wrong about this, too. The point being, I had become profoundly depressed and was confused about why. I felt the only option was to face it alone, and there was no one who seemed to care.
It was at this point that I began planning to end it all. There was a row of huge trees along the road on my way home. It would be so easy to forget to buckle my seat belt. To pick up speed down the straight away, up the rise and veer into that first massive tree. And that would be then end. All the pain, the confusion, the brokenness, would be over. And I could end that most painful relationship and all the hurtful words and sad scenes. And that, by the grace of God, is when I realised that I was really in trouble.
When one listens to advocates for those suffering from mental illness, they will always say again and again, ‘Get help!’ That’s what I did. Mercifully, in my city, there was a counselling centre staffed not by amateur mission administrators, but by psychologists and psychiatrists. They were able to get me in almost immediately, and I began a five year process of unpacking what was happening and why. The first step was a medical one, which was to treat the illness of depression with medication. But it took several tries to find the medication that worked for me. I have been on this particular medication for 8 years, and I understand that I will be on it the rest of my life. But the heavy clouds of depression have long ago lifted and I have felt as normal as I ever feel for the longest stretch in my life. For this I am very grateful.
Challenging as the medical aspect was, the counselling part is still a work in progress. I can only say that my understanding of myself has been transformed. I have learned not to be in denial about who I am or what I struggle with. I better understand my past and how I responded to people who hurt me. I also saw clearly for the first time the dynamics that characterised my marriage and what I contributed to our mutual dysfunction. And I attempted to take responsibility for what I could change. All of this has taken years of work - my own reading and reflection and praying, meeting with a counsellor. And though I am no longer seeing a counsellor, the process of understanding, responding, repenting, and changing continues. During this time I ended my marriage, putting a stop to the most painful thing I have ever experienced. This, of course, was incredibly scandalous in the circles where we had served. And as is so often the case, sadly the stories circulating made me to be the bad guy, though not a single one of these people (who are all ‘strong Christians’ and had previously been friends) has bothered to talk to me in person about it and find out if any of what they had heard was true. But that is water down the river.
The reason I mention this is not to fight old fights in public or to try to justify myself at another’s expense. Rather it is to say that depression is very complicated and one of the must human of all diseases. Its causes can be a messy complex of circumstances or a chemical issue out of the blue. It affects everything - what we see, what we hear, how we cope, what we do, what we think, what we choose. It’s like a heavy bag tied to even the strongest swimmer. No matter how hard I stroke and pull and kick, I just keep sinking down, down, down. Unless I get help, I will drown.
Ironically, Christianity, which has some of the most wonderful and powerful tools that a person and a community can use when dealing with someone with depression - Christianity is full of adherents who may mean well, but whose own inability to understand what depression is or what one can do to help, force the one who is suffering either to go into denial that anything is wrong or to abandon the faith because of the apparent cruelty of the other believers. I certainly have experienced that cruelty and that ignorance and that stupidity first hand, and it is disorienting and painful and would have been a contributing factor to my suicide had I gone through with my plans. But things will not improve - people will continue to fall so low that they lose the will and capacity to live and want only to end the pain - unless we begin to give people in our midst permission to be broken. There is nothing sinful about depression - it is a disease, like diabetes is a disease. There is nothing shameful about depression - it can be helped and treated. There is nothing disqualifying about depression - people can recover and become even better than before because they are more adept to understanding themselves and the people around them. The problem is not depression, it’s all the people in churches, in offices, in schools, and in homes, who believe that someone suffering from depression is somehow deficient, somehow weak, somehow sinful, somehow shameful or scandalous. But it is the people who think these things that are the real menace to a church or an office or an institution. Because if church cannot be a safe place for the sick, the hurting, the struggling, even the sinful, then it is no longer the church, regardless of the name and pedigree.
People are committing suicide around us. People are profoundly struggling all around us. People are deeply hurting all around us. But the time has come and gone for any of us to profess ‘shock’ or to be able to say, ‘I didn’t know’. The time has come when such statements are not a reflection of some failing of the sufferer, but of our own moral culpability, as individual Christians and as churches. We are our brother's keeper, and our sister's keeper, too.